While US Soccer and Mexico Failed, Canada's Copa America Plan Gives Jesse Marsch's Team Optimism and Confidence

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — There's always an air of excitement when a sporting event produces a rare but true Cinderella story, and Canada's underdog status against Argentina in the Copa America semi-final was omnipresent no matter which angle you looked at things from.

Trains to MetLife Stadium were packed with fans dressed in baby blue and white, singing songs en route to the venue, while the dramatically outnumbered Canadian fans in bright red stood out like a sore thumb, even as they politely minded their own business. The same was true inside the stadium, where a tightly packed red section made up a fraction of the 80,000-strong crowd.

It didn't take long for the difference to be felt on the field. It was a reminder that when asked if Cinderella could play another game, the answer was simply no.

Canada went down 2-0 to Argentina on Tuesday after running out of energy just 20 minutes into the game, not helped by a hot summer day coupled with oppressive humidity. That’s not to say Canada buckled under the weight of expectations; the first Copa America semifinal simply became a grind to survive, and so a sense of inevitability killed any excitement for an underdog story.

“I think the tournament caught up with us a little bit,” Canadian head coach Jesse Marsch said after the game. “Argentina rotated a lot of players throughout the tournament, so they used different players at different times and didn't call up the same players every game. There was heat, there was travel, there were a lot of challenges.”

It required each team to rely on their parts rather than the sum, which was always going to be to Argentina’s advantage. It was far from their best 90-minute performance, but that didn’t matter as Lionel Messi finally scored his first goal of the competition as his team dominated the match. The feeling of certain defeat was compounded by the loss of Canadian star and captain Alphonso Davies, who Marsch says will require an x-ray after leaving the match with an injury.

And yet the air of optimism lingered. How could it not, given that Marsch had been on the job for less than two weeks and had led Canada all the way to the semifinals of a competition they had struggled to qualify for before he showed up?

It's an impressive feat with so little preparation time and alongside a squad that has some star power but isn't on par with the highest-ranked team in the world. Luck always plays a part — Canada were undoubtedly on the easy side of the group, playing against a number of lower-ranked South American teams en route to the semi-finals, allowing them to score just two goals so far. One-off tournament meetings are also the perfect setting for a team to punch above their weight, as long as they have a good day. Marsch himself admitted that his first few weeks on the job have gone better than expected, with them now in the third-place match on Saturday to complete their first-ever trip to the Copa America.

“It's going to be hard to say goodbye when we're all done because I've really enjoyed the process with this team and I think we've made a lot of progress together,” he said. “We've had a great five weeks together, six weeks together, and it's gone a lot better than we ever could have imagined. We still have a lot of work to do, but we've built a really good foundation and I'm really optimistic about what the future can look like.”

In just a few short weeks, Marsch has mapped out the mission for the sport’s middling national teams, all of whom aspire to do better than some might expect, regardless of the challenges they face. He’s translated his attacking, pressing style to the international level with immediate results, helping Canada score nearly seven expected goals and posing a threat along the way, even though by Marsch’s own admission they need to be more efficient in front of goal. It’s proof that strong coaching can enhance any team’s chances, an exciting prospect amid the visionless scenarios other similarly positioned national teams find themselves in.

The easiest comparisons to make to Canada’s meteoric rise are its neighbors, the U.S. and Mexico, both of which will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Canada and entered the Copa America as a chance to make a splash ahead of the tournament on home soil in two years. The other two have historically been better than Canada and yet crashed out of the group stage and now feel left out for other reasons. The U.S. situation is particularly poignant because Marsch was a candidate for the job in his native country but said he “wasn’t treated very well in the process,” leading them to rehire Gregg Berhalter a year ago.

Those two teams are far from the only examples, however, as so many national teams find themselves stuck in the middle of their own plateau for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that it’s just remarkably difficult to turn a small fry into an outsider. While Marsch and co. have received praise from their countries, they’ve also raised the bar far higher than originally anticipated — and perhaps raised the stakes in the process. If the Copa America was a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, then the countdown to living up to expectations in two years’ time has officially begun.

Marsch has already identified areas for improvement for the next two years.

“Creating a broader player pool will be important,” he said. “And then continuing to work on the details of how we're going to play, but we've started really well.”

The first point speaks to Argentina’s strengths, as the team found a way to score without Messi throughout the tournament and managed to rotate as they toured the US to defend their Copa America title. It’s also perhaps the most difficult thing Marsh can do, as he has limited control over player development. But it’s as big a promise as any, and the onus is on him and the Canadian Soccer Federation to deliver on it in two years.

It could be an uphill battle given Marsch’s limitations. In addition to a still-limited player pool, international coaches will occasionally have FIFA-sanctioned breaks to impose their playing styles, and Canada will have the added difficulty of scheduling quality friendlies while the rest of the world is stuck with World Cup qualifiers. Time will tell whether this is an impossible task or the beginning of the blueprint for national teams hoping the sum is greater than its parts.

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